NECOCLI, Colombia, May 9 (Reuters) - Hundreds of farmers, fishermen and their families packed a sweltering school building on Colombia's northern coast, looking for justice after years of suffering silently under paramilitary warlords.
Clutching a microphone, Jose Moguea trembled as he begged government officials for help finding his son, who was snatched by gunmen from the family farm more than nine months ago.
"I just need to know if my son is alive or dead," the aging farmer wailed at the meeting last weekend before emotion robbed him of his voice.
In villages and towns across Colombia, victims are coming forward to describe the murders, kidnapping and land grabs committed by militia bosses in the name of combating leftist guerrillas still waging a insurgency dating back to the 1960s.
President Alvaro Uribe's U.S.-financed security crackdown has weakened the guerrillas and disarmed 31,000 paramilitaries under a peace deal handing militia commanders short jail terms for giving up their guns, confessing their crimes and compensating victims.
But Uribe is under scrutiny for links between some of his allies and the militias. Rights groups worry jailed commanders have kept their criminal operations alive and U.S. Democrats pushed him during his visit to Washington last week to curb resurgent paramilitary violence as they decide whether to back a free trade deal and aid package.
Towns like Necocli in banana-growing Uraba region on Colombia's Caribbean coast were a paramilitary heartland until local commanders such as Freddy Rondon, nicknamed "The German" for his efficiency, joined the peace deal and demobilized his private army in August -- the last main warlord to do so.
Necocli's white-washed schoolhouse heard testimony about sons hacked to death with machetes, farmland seized by militias and husbands kidnapped in the night. A sea of hands went up when an official asked how many had lost family to violence.
"We know there is fear, we know in Uraba there are some groups who have resurfaced, but people have come out to make statements," said Gerardo Vega, director for the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation office in Antioquia province, one of the hardest hit by violence.
THREATS AND INFLUENCE
Elkin Manuel Mendoza, 34, rode a mule for two hours and then took a bus with his mother to Necocli to hear how authorities might help the family after his sister was taken by gunmen in 2000. She was found dead two days later.
"We are here to see what solution they have for us, to see if there is any economic help, for my old lady," he said.
But the huge scope of militia crimes are overwhelming investigators. More than 50,000 victims have registered with authorities, but Colombia has just nine judges and 20 prosecutors assigned to militia probe and has asked for international help.
Victims' statements will be used to cross reference testimony by militia commanders. The government has seized assets from paramilitaries to pay compensation, but the system and amount of payments is still being debated.
Confessions and testimonies have led investigators to hundreds of graves where victims were often dumped after being butchered. Forensic experts last week unearthed the bodies of more than 100 victims near the border with Ecuador.
The threat to victims seeking justice was illustrated by the murder in February of Yolanda Izquierdo, an activist seeking compensation for peasants forced off their land by a top militia commander.
As residents filled up Necocli's school, a demobilized commander from Rondon's Elmer Cardenas Bloc militias rolled up in a jeep to talk to victims. He was turned away by police and the local mayor.
"We just want the victims to have some trust. We are completely committed to this process," he said outside the school gates.
It was not a message that put everyone at ease in the small town of fishermen and farmers.
"It is best not to," said one woman when asked to tell her story at the school. "These days, you never know."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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